Monday, October 24, 2011

On Supremo, Ajooba and other pre-Ra.One superheroes

[Did a version of this for First Post]

Watching the Ra.One trailers – so evocative of Hollywood superhero and fantasy films – and reading about the huge budget and the cutting-edge effects, I remembered a time when “Bollywood Superhero Movie” was a tautology. If a leading man already has powers well beyond mortal imagination, how does it add value to dress him in tights or a metallic suit and to have death rays or spider webs flowing from his fingers?

But as my just-excavated “Adventures of Amitabh Bachchan” comics show, movie heroes were occasionally dolled up in the distant past too. Published in the early 1980s, this series cast the superstar as “himself” and as his crime-fighting alter-ego Supremo. Supremo had no superpowers, but that didn’t stop him from wearing a tight pink suit with a purple sarong tied around his waist (wisely, the people who thought up the series decided against Superman-style outer-innerwear) and the obligatory aviator goggles to protect his identity. He travelled by helicopter, solved mysteries with his young assistants Vijay and Anthony (obvious references to two of Amitabh’s best-known screen aliases) and hung out on an island populated by wild animals. To eight-year-old eyes, all this was supremo-cool.

Hindi cinema itself made few excursions into sci-fi/fantasy at the time, notwithstanding magnificent dream sequences like the one with Govinda and Kimi Katkar as Superman and Spiderwoman (or was it the other way around?). The best of those movies was the hugely popular Mr India, with its invisible hero (Anil Kapoor never looked better!), a pink acid pool in the villain's den and a variant on the Superman-Lois Lane story (a chirpy reporter falls in love with Mr India without realising who he really is). But apart from a couple of neatly staged scenes like the one where the bad guys are seemingly knocked out by a Hanuman statue, there was nothing especially high-tech about that film.

That promise briefly came with the other signpost superhero movie of my youth – the Arabian Nights fantasy Ajooba, with Bachchan as a regular guy named Ali who doubled up as the dashing eponymous masked hero. Two years earlier, in a film set in the "real" world – Shahenshah – Amitabh had also played a bumpkin with a secret vigilante identity, but Ajooba was meant to be much more. Scanning Bollywood-related blogs today, I find that it’s now viewed as a film that was always meant to be high camp (and which therefore met its own ambitions perfectly) – its cult
following rests on scenes like the one where Amitabh interrupts a conversation with a dolphin to tell an old woman “yeh machli meri ma hai”. (Somewhere Nirupa Roy was weeping tears of maternal betrayal.) But I remember the long build-up and the pre-release claims made for it in magazines; back then, everyone thought it would bring new standards of technical excellence to Hindi cinema.

The Friday afternoon when we finally saw it was a disappointment. Even to an impressionable 13-year-old, the metallic monster that showed up in the climax was a walking scrap heap with an endearingly doleful expression, the back-projection for the flying carpets was amateurish, and the sight of a miniaturised Rishi Kapoor gyrating inside Sonam’s blouse was small compensation. None of it could compare with the seamless, almost poetic special effects in the most high-profile Hollywood movies of the time, like Terminator 2.

Twenty years on, it’s safe to say that the paisa-vasool scenes in Ra.One will look like they could have dropped out of any contemporary Hollywood film. This is part of a new generation of big-budget movies that are competing with an ever more sophisticated gaming universe – one that today’s kids are so familiar with that most regular action films look unimpressive to them.

The Ra.One look – or what little has been revealed of it so far – reminds me of a much-repeated Shekhar Kapur quote from a few years ago. A time will come, Kapur said, when Spider Man takes off his mask and the face underneath will be that of an Indian or a Chinese actor. The point was to extol the increasingly global appeal of Asian cinema (and its access to the best technology), but a counter-question might be asked: actors apart, will there be anything identifiably Indian about this film? One shot in the trailer has Arjun Rampal (playing the titular villain) emerging from a fiery background that takes the shape of the ten-headed Ravana. But apart from this token reference to Indian mythology, the bad guy’s look seems to derive from films like Star Wars: The Phantom Menace (and, doubtless, video-game villains of whom I know nothing).

Arguably the first time we saw effects of this quality in an Indian movie was last year, in the Rajinikanth-starrer Robot/Enthiran, with its spectacular (and spectacularly overlong) climactic sequence where hundreds of evil robots arrange themselves into serpentine shapes, swallowing cars and helicopters whole. But even this CGI-fest never lost sight of Rajinikanth’s chief fan base – the ones who knew he was a superhero even when he was playing a taxi-driver. And so, Enthiran had its cheesy mass-audience moments too, its nods to the tradition of a dainty heroine having to be rescued from leering, moustached goons, and even a tacky little animated-mosquito interlude that played like a Kachua-Chaap ad. In any case the film’s eventual hero was not the high-tech robot but the nerdish professor with no superpowers (except for the important detail that he was played by you-know-who).

Back in Mumbai, as we keep hearing these days, “retro” is the rage. Salman Khan – Shah Rukh’s major rival within Bollywood – has had a line of box-office successes with Wanted, Dabangg and Bodyguard, movies that have been celebrated for their harking back to the dhishum dhishum cinema of the 1980s (and an older definition of “superhero”). Compared to the cheerful mass appeal of these films, it’s likely that Ra.One’s audience will be more niche: mainly the urban, multiplex-going youngsters. It will no doubt have a global market - which is just as well, given the costs it needs to recur - but will it be a pan-Indian success? (Remember, in the pre-multiplex age, the divide between metropolitan and small-town audiences was less pronounced than it is today.
Those Amitabh comics were published in various Indian languages, and one could imagine literate children anywhere in the country reading and relating to them.)

Shah Rukh and his financiers have probably spent more time thinking about these things than I have, and since they are smart businessmen they will have taken whatever steps are necessary to broaden their film’s appeal. Though I haven’t followed Ra.One-related gossip too closely, one of the last things I heard was that Rajinikanth had been brought in for a cameo as well as for “blessings”. This sounds as good a move as any. If only they could have thrown in a brief animated sequence with Supremo on his island and Ajooba’s dolphin ma(one) whistling in the distance, we would have that rare thing: an ultra-slick gaming blockbuster that a nostalgic 80s child like yours truly could relate to.

[Dolphin pic courtesy Beth Loves Bollywood, whose Ajooba post you must read]


  1. Ha ha!

    And how could you forget Puneet Issar's superman?

    And do watch this video of him trying to save a high-jacked plane. The fright on the faces of the passengers apparently stems from the notion that someone as bad looking as Puneet Issar will save them!

  2. I think you had me at the Dolphin picture.

    "She is greeting you,"??


  3. What about Jackie Shroff in 'Shiva ka Insaaf'? As a teenager I was totally besotted with him. And this was him in 3D!! I still remember a scene where he hands out money - his arm reaching towards the camera. Must have looked good in 3D. coz I saw it in 2D only :((

  4. Deepa, Rantings: I have hardly any memory of either Shiva ka Insaaf or the Puneet Issar Superman (that plane clip was awesome), but this wasn't meant to be a comprehensive listing anyway - just some thoughts on superheroes then and now, with personal reminiscence thrown in.

  5. Incidentally, even in the Supremo comics, there was a talking dolphin which transported AB to his den!

  6. Would you review ra-one. Puhlease

  7. Loved it. If a spider bite can turn a nerd to spidy, what is a problem if a game brings out a superhero. Tell me one thing - what is expected from a superhero movie? 1. Great action between the Hero and Villain. 2. Great visual effect. 3. Action packed cinematography, thrill and suspense. I would say that Ra.One is a sincere effort with a mixture of all these. It might not be as great as a visual treat like Hollywood movies, but I would certainly appreciate the efforts by the entire cast and crew making it the first of its kind in Bollywood. Where is the scope of acting in these kind of movies? The humour added was definitely mature content in a few ocassions, but the end result was enjoyable. Chammak Challo was great, action, VFX were good. Please enjoy the movie keeping in mind that SRK could afford less than 1/10th of what movies Avatar,Terminator or Spiderman could . Dont keep any expectation of storyline and acting since its out of scope and enjoy the 3d version. You would love it.

  8. Rahul: I've already provided my one-sentence review of the film in this post. Couldn't be bothered to write anything more about it. But do read the Samit Basu piece I've linked to there, if you have the attention span for it (which I doubt). Or read this.

  9. RA-One is one of the most horrible and mediocre filems I have ever seen. And to talk aboit cost of making this film, I think these guys take the present day Indians to be complete village bumpkin, cause I just cannot understand where the INR 150 crores + was spent. Just a case of a BIG MOUTH I suppose, when there is nothing to show in theh movie, then you incresae the cost of making it so high that poor people cpould just walk in to see wqhere it was spent. Wahta acrpa movies, seriously, the makers should be ashamed to even showcase and attempt to make such mediocre crap. All I can gather from these, that the FILM INDUSTRY like everything in India is not HONEST and does not have an integrity which is required in any profession. Thse guys who act, produce, dircet and all othre in the INDIAN FILM INDUSTRY are a bunch of losers of the highest order, a typical "jhugaad" bunch. A type of people who wouild put togethre anything wityhout passion, without much effort and most impportnat of it all, wiothout any talent and creativity, so that thye could be some "takka" more than their investment. These film-makers are the scourge of the nation, because, it is their use in ability, mediocreness and anything goes "jhugaad" philosophy, that has been the ruin of India for so manay years since Independence.